Reader BWA sent me a delightful series of links, which I (being the kindly soul I am) will share with you. I have long been a fan of Laurel and Hardy, but I had no idea they were hugely popular in Italy, nor that their dubbed voices were so distinctive and well loved. This page (by Jeff Matthews) tells the story of how it came about:
Perhaps the strangest sidelight in this whole matter is that dubbed voices can become part and parcel of another culture, evoking allusions and inside jokes just as do the original voices in their own culture. The Italian voices of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy are the best example of this. When talkies came in, Laurel and Hardy had already achieved world-wide fame on the basis of their short silent movies. There was such a new demand for them speaking, however, that for a time they actually reshot their scenes hurriedly in other languages, pronouncing their lines from scripts written in phonetic English. These scenes would then be sent abroad to be spliced into the rest of the film, which had been remade in the target language using local actors. That soon proved impractical, especially for longer feature films. Consequently, for the Italian market the decision was made to dub the films of Laurel and Hardy in American studios using Italian-American actors, who, presumably, thought they were speaking standard Italian. Their own Italian, however, had been maimed by at least one generation of nasal semi-vowels, unrolled r’s and Wrigley’s Spearmint.
When the studios in Rome reviewed the first dubbed-in-America Laurel & Hardy film to see what they had, the American English accented voices were so hilarious, that someone came up with the idea of redubbing everyone else into normal Italian, but leaving Stan and Ollie with accents. There followed a nation-wide contest to find the voices of Laurel and Hardy in Italian. One winner was the now famous Italian comic, Alberto Sordi, whose career started as the voice of Oliver Hardy. His anglicized Italian as ‘Ollie’ has become so much a part of Italian popular culture that an Italian, today, can do Oliver Hardy by saying, with a broad English language accent, ‘stuPIdo’ (accenting the second, instead of the first, syllable, in imitation of Sordi’s version of Oliver Hardy) and have it recognized as instantly as an English-speaker would recognize, “Well, here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten me into!” Indeed, Italian mimics still regularly pay tribute to Laurel and Hardy, imitating the dubbed voices. (The Italian voice of Stan Laurel was Mauro Zambuto, who, after WW II, moved to the United States and became a professor of Electrical Engineering at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.)
So, without taking anything away from the universal nature of the humor of Laurel and Hardy, it is fair to say that in Italy, much of their popularity was—and still is—due to the spectacularly successful way they are dubbed. There is no Italian comic (not even the great Totò) who, by voice alone, is as recognizable as are Laurel and Hardy in Italian.
You can see clips of Alberto Sordi, including a shot of the actual dubbing back in the day and a final, touching reunion with Zambuto, here, and an example of their work here (the first part of the deservedly famous The Music Box, from 1932). Enjoy!